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How contact tracers are following COVID-19 cases in St. Louis County

Twenty Jennings School District employees are now contact tracers. County leaders say other investigators traced the source of one new outbreak: a shared break room.

JENNINGS, Mo. — When Jennings became the first St. Louis County school district to bring students back last week – implementing new coronavirus tactics in a pilot summer school session – it was proactive with health screenings at the front door. But some of the same staff members are now also trained to react, in case there is an outbreak.

"As educators, we are always evolving," Jennings Safety and Security Director Leon Hite said.

Hite is one of 20 Jennings School District employees who recently completed contact tracing training from Johns Hopkins University.

"I have more degrees than a thermometer," he jokes. "But this was more feasible for what is going on now. It was at home. It was at your own time. We were able to sit back and digest the information."

New this semester, the school district has set up so-called 'Care Rooms' which are designed to isolate students if they start to show symptoms, giving them a place to wait until they can go home.

"We are going to be ready. We have no choice," Hite said.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Monday the health department has 260 contact tracers and the process works so well they were recently able to track down the source location of 12 COVID-19 positive tests all back to the same origin: a manufacturing plant break room.

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"We have to remember as we go back to our workplaces that social distancing is important. There's no place in the building that safe," Page said.

At Jennings School District, Hite said it's important to have its own tracers ready because time is of the essence.

"Contact tracing is no good if we wait three weeks to try to check and trace. We have to try us right now instantly," Hite said.

Jennings School District Superintendent Art McCoy said the district will share the lessons of this pilot program summer school program with other districts. That includes any information that comes out of contact tracing. 

While there have been success stories, work for contact tracers has been difficult across the St. Louis area. The Pandemic Task Force said recently that some people have refused to work with them.

Page said it's important to respond immediately to any calls from the country health department answering questions as soon as possible about potential exposure.

Contact reporter Sara Machi on Facebook and Twitter.